Film noir lingers in the darkness of the soul, but it’s also about weakness, the trouble that arises when people yield to temptation and impulse—be it lust, greed, jealousy, revenge, or some combination thereof. But there’s a strain of noir where that weakness is answered by a force of diabolical, almost incomprehensible power, one capable of beating back the schemes of mere mortals with minimal exertion. If the title Force Of Evil hadn’t already been taken by Abraham Polonsky’s great 1948 tale of brothers hung up in the numbers racket, it would apply to Claire Denis’ noir-inflected Bastards, though the pluralization pointedly spreads the blame around. It may be the darkest film of Denis’ career—which, after her vampiric shocker Trouble Every Day, is saying something. Bastards deals in power and its corrosive effects, but it unfolds with such delicacy and mood that its endpoint is startling. How did the river wend and weave to such an awful place?
Some clues to where it’s headed are planted at the beginning, when a rain-streaked night yields two bodies: that of a man who has committed suicide, and that of a young woman, naked and in high heels, stumbling down the street with blood coursing down her inner thighs. It turns out the two are father and daughter, but Denis and her longtime screenwriting partner, Jean-Pol Fargeau, wait until the final moments to tease out every connection. The deceased was the head of a bankrupt shoe manufacturer, and the blame for his descent has been pinned on silver-haired business tycoon Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), who served as his pitiless debtor. As the daughter, Justine (Lola Créton, of Goodbye First Love and Something In The Air), recovers from her physical and mental trauma, and her mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille), sinks into despair, help arrives in the musky form of Sandra’s brother Marco (Denis favorite Vincent Lindon), a ship’s captain who cashes out his savings and leaves his old life behind.
This is where things get murky, but it’s in Denis’ aesthetic nature to luxuriate in the murk. Marco moves into the apartment below Laporte’s much younger mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their son, with the apparent intent of bedding her—and it just takes one glance at his hulking back under a white dress shirt to make that happen. She’s a lonely kept woman, and Laporte seems much more interested in his pint-sized heir than her; their one, desultory moment of intimacy is Laporte climbing into bed and asking for a hand job. Raphaëlle’s vulnerability complicates Marco’s revenge plans, which are further stymied by his investigation into the nasty creatures responsible for Justine’s violation.
None of these plot developments hit the audience head-on, which works entirely in Bastards’ favor, since its conclusion is so close to that of another dark thriller from a contemporary French master that revealing its title would give the game away. But Denis’ atmospherics, as usual, carry the day: Noir is a game of hard shadows and hard cases, but Denis (Beau Travail, Friday Night) and her team of regular collaborators—cinematographer Agnès Godard, many of the actors, and Tindersticks, who contribute an essential mood-building score—approach it with a seductive delicacy that’s both fitting for the genre and distinct from it. Just as Trouble Every Day exists on the fringes of French extreme horror, Bastards is a neo-noir that doesn’t behave entirely as expected.
Beyond the intrigue of Denis assembling this elliptical puzzle of a narrative, what’s impressive about Bastards is its depiction of power as a terrible, inchoate vibe, like a storm quietly gathering on the horizon. There’s a reason why men like Laporte get rich and have the freedom to do awful things without repercussions; Marcos comes to understand that, but just as important is how it drives him into his own ambiguous moral terrain. In this world, evil is a presence that cannot be exorcised; the sad mystery of Bastards is discovering where each character stands in relation to it, and whether they can pull out of its wake.